I woke up thinking about something sad today, so I immediately thought of parrots, as my therapist has instructed me to do. I imagined I’d been admitted to the MIT Media Lab to study African Grey parrots in Irene Pepperberg’s lab where she trained Alex and the others. Then I started to think about what in the world I would ever do to get to such a place, ie: how I would translate my good parrot handling abilities into something academic that could benefit the world?
My friends joke that I am “the parrot whisperer,” but what is whispering to an animal? I think it’s simply understanding the animal, and most people don’t bother with parrots. Most people look at parrots and go into color shock. They see the colors, and they say “how beautiful,” and they feel jealousy that they can’t have colors like that—endogenous fashion. Then someone says “do you want to hold him?” and they look at the beak, which crushes down on things like walnuts or fingers with up to 700 psi of force, and they say fuck that I’m fine over here. This is because people are afraid of things they don’t understand , including other people.
When I was 5, I wanted to have a zoo full of all kinds of magnificent animals including an orca whale, which I guess was influenced by Free Willie, although I clearly missed the point. At the time I lived in an apartment building in downtown Ann Arbor, so I established that the zoo would have to go in the back parking lot. It didn’t occur to me that this might perturb the other neighbors, or that the Orca would freeze in the Michigan winter. As an only child, I was only concerned about how much fun I would have playing with all these creatures, as the stuffed animals weren’t cutting it. I drew massive architectural plans for this zoo in crayon, and pitched the idea to my mom. In her life, she’d at one time or another possessed: two siamese cats (Sasha and Tisa), two Lhasa Apso dogs (Miel and Sasuk), a large unidentifiable parrot (Caca) that she hated and purposely left outside in some South American country hoping a burglar would steal it, and a spider monkey (name unknown) that flung its feces at her and her guests. It’s anyone’s guess as to what happened to that poor creature.
So, she wasn’t having my zoo, and got me the most low-maintenance animal she could think of: a fire-belly newt.
I was ecstatic!!!! I named this small amphibian Scooter after my favorite Muppet Baby (which according to Wikipedia was “a brainy, computer-knowledgeable child”) and would play with him for hours at a time, as long as I could until his skin dried out and needed to go back in his habitat, which was a fish bowl inside a cardboard diorama I created to mimic the natural habitat of my neon wondered dreams.
When scooter died, I was devastated so my mom got me another one. I named him Scooter 2, but Scooter 2 wasn’t as animated as Scooter 1 and had some kind of arrested growth disorder and died pretty quickly. We tried again with Scooter 3, but that was from the same dysfunctional batch of newts and, as it perished my mind wandered back to my zoo.
Thinking quickly, my mom upped the ante to the next most low-maintenance animal she could fathom: a parakeet. Again, I was THRILLED. I named him Skateboard, after my new favorite hobby. I spent hours teaching Skateboard tricks, prepping for my future career of being the official parrot trainer at Parrot Jungle in Miami. He had a copper cage with a bright blue victorian top that matched the coloring in his cheeks, and six year old me and him were the best of friends.
When my older cousins came to visit, I was thrilled to show off Skateboard. My cousin, who was two years older, told me that she had birds too, a cockatiel, and proceeded to teach me her main training technique, which was that if they get nippy, which Skateboard was occasionally, they would learn to not bite if you just held their beaks shut for a little while. This made sense to my six year old brain, and she was older and more equipped at bird training than I. So one day after she left I was trying this technique with Skateboard, and I made a fatal mistake: I accidentally covered his nose too. He died on my chest.
It brings tears to my eyes right now to think about how stupid I was and how horribly and unnecessarily this poor creature died. But at the same time, it was such an innocent mistake that I can rationally see my guilt is far out of proportion for the crime. I can assure you that my subsequent animals, three more parakeets, a lutino cockatiel and my beloved quaker parrot met much milder fates. The parakeets, Skateboard 2 (who eventually was just Skateboard again), Skeeter and Sunny all died of old age. Speedy followed me outside when I went to look at a rainbow, got disoriented, and flew off somewhere over the rainbow. And Kiwi… well, you can read more about him here if you want.
Now I’ve worked myself into a tearful frenzy and I can’t see to write about what I initially wanted to write about, which is how I have come to understand parrots, sometimes more than I understand other people.
To Be Continued…